Pat Buchanan is dead wrong on the rise of white rage

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I spend a fair amount of time sparring with those who fall along various points on the right-wing spectrum, so I should not have been surprised by the interesting constellation of venom in Mr. Buchanan’s recent essay, Populist Right Rising. In it, Mr. Buchanan posits an end to the “Age of Obama,” that epoch having been abbreviated by a resurgence of white, right-wing rage. It is a rage that has been much on display of late during the town halls taking place across the country, and it is a rage with which, according to Mr. Buchanan, much of America empathizes.

As evidence of that empathy, Mr. Buchanan relies upon a Pew poll, in which he claims 61% of those polled believe the town hall protestors are “behaving properly.” This alleged identification with the town hall protestors (who have taken to bringing firearms to presidential events and accusing the advocates of health care reform of genocidal tendencies) is apparently premised, according to Mr. Buchanan, on the notion that the protestors “look and talk just like them.” The American public is therefore doing nothing more than showing its loyalty to its own, much as it did during the 1968 Democratic Convention when “the country sided with the Chicago cops” who confronted the antiwar protestors and “gave them a good thrashing.”

This, of course, is not the only evidence of Mr. Buchanan’s resurgent populists. As additional evidence that the Obama era has come and gone he cites 1) the voracious consumption of right-wing literature by the American reading public; 2) the public’s repudiation of President Obama’s response to a White police officer who, after wrongly thinking him a burglar, arrests an African-American Harvard professor in his own home for disorderly conduct, and; 3) the rank and file’s refusal to repudiate the GOP leadership for the party’s near-uniform rejection of the nation’s first Hispanic Justice to the High Court.

Moreover, Mr. Buchanan is quite explicit about the division of loyalties that have arisen: “Obama’s support among Africans [sic]-Americans remains solid. His support among the white working and middle class is sinking.” Mr. Buchanan’s “Populist Right Rising” thus seems very specifically to be a “New White Power” movement.

Mr. Buchanan’s fluency in the techniques of partisan race baiting is so well known that it deserves no comment here. That fluency, however, cannot camouflage the desperate lengths to which racial profiteers will go to legitimize their peculiar and danger brand of divisiveness.

As an initial matter, I think it may fairly be said that Mr. Buchanan goes a bit too far when he infers that an author’s commercial success necessarily correlates to the public’s agreement with his views. Xaviera Hollander’s autobiography The Happy Hooker and Hitler’s Mein Kampf, for instance, each have sold millions of copies. I think it highly unlikely that those impressive sales correspond to any desire by the literary public to dabble in either the sex trade or mass genocide. I would even go so far as to suggest that all those who bought President’s Obama’s books – which had their own lengthy sojourn on numerous bestseller lists – did not necessarily vote for him during the election and may not support him now. In any event, buying books does not an ally make. (I’ll leave aside, for the moment, the fact that various institutional allies of the American far right have proven themselves quite adept at inflating book sales by ordering those works en masse. Not being affiliated with any of these groups I certainly can’t speak to their efforts on behalf of the right-wing works cited by Mr. Buchanan, but they’ve shown themselves to be rather good at this tactic.)

Mr. Buchanan’s discussion of the results of the Pew Poll – which he claims provides support for the notion that most Americans identify with the town hall protestors – is even more curious. While he maintains that 61% of the poll’s respondents thought that the “town hall” protestors “were behaving properly,” he seems to deliberately omit one of the more revealing metrics in that study. Among the issues examined (and which Mr. Buchanan does not discuss) was the extent of the respondents’ exposure to the town hall protests. Of the total respondents, 49% said they heard “a lot” about the protests and 29% said they heard “a little.” Of that 29% – the ones who said they heard only “a little” – 61% did respond, as Mr. Buchanan contended, that they believed the protestors were acting properly.

Accordingly, the people who admit to not knowing very much about what the protestors were doing think that what the protestors were doing was okay. I hardly think this compelling support for the existence of a rising populist movement that embraces their methods.

Mr. Buchanan goes on to say that the GOP was not hurt when “by four to one, its senators voted against “Ms. Affirmative Action” (that would be Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in case you were wondering). Such a spiteful reference to the High Court’s newest Justice is probably among the more banal of Mr. Buchanan’s race-baiting tactics. Indeed, many of us have come to see as “old hat” this strategy of diminishing the accomplishments of women and people of color by those who just can’t digest the fact that some in these groups rise to heights of extraordinary achievement because, well, they’re qualified, work hard, and outperform their counterparts. This may be a bitter pill for Mr. Buchanan and others of his ilk to swallow, but it is simply time to take that medicine and move on.

No, far more interesting to me is his presumptuousness in concluding that the GOP was not hurt by its near lockstep rejection of the Justice. I would think that the next national election, and not Mr. Buchanan’s cursory conclusions, would be a better barometer of the party’s standing with respect to that issue, particularly when that rejection was premised on the use of standards rarely in evidence when considering the appointment of White, male nominees to the Court. (Justice Alito’s celebration of his ethnic heritage, for instance, was widely applauded. And I would defy anyone schooled in the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court to argue that the life experiences of the predominantly White male justices who shaped that canon did not inform certain of the Court’s conclusions. I would invite those disputing this contention to review the Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, for instance.)

It seems that Mr. Buchanan is a bit too eager to assume that his countrymen (and women) are prone to the same virulent racialism that has become his signature – a racialism that is once again all too apparent in the course of his discussion about the Gates/Crowley contretemps. His description of that encounter is telling: he explains it as the Sergeant having arrested a “Harvard professor who got in his face.” What a curious choice of words – “got in his face.” While most of us are all too familiar with the details of that unfortunate tale to warrant recounting them here, it is revealing that Mr. Buchanan neglected to mention that the “Harvard professor” in question was in his own home, having been wrongly accused of burglarizing it after returning from a transatlantic trip. I, for one, always thought that when wrongfully accosted in my own home, some “getting in the face” of my assailant might be in order – particularly when he accuses me of not belonging there and subsequently may have lied about the “tip” that led him to accost me.

I also think it interesting that Mr. Buchanan and his ideological allies, many of whom expressed such horror over the tactics of the federal government at Ruby Ridge and Waco, could not muster some degree of outrage over Professor Gates being confronted by an agent of “big government” (albeit a big state government) in his own home. While I would not purport to compare a loss of life to the indignity of a detention, it seems to me that those of Mr. Buchanan’s ilk have concluded that only armed White supremacists and alleged pedophile cultists are entitled to enjoy the sanctity of their own homes free of government intrusion. Perhaps if Professor Gates, too, had been armed during his confrontation with Sgt. Crowley he would have garnered more of sympathy from those corners. But then again, given the fact that the “Harvard Professor” doesn’t “look like” those who comprise Mr. Buchanan’s vaunted “Populist Right,” perhaps not.

In any event, Mr. Buchanan’s haste to make a hero of a cop who acted “stupidly” is revealing. And while I may speak so bluntly, the President should not – and I daresay that it was that impolitic reaction by the President which gave rise to the negative reaction by many following that story, not sympathy for a police officer who wrongfully accuses an African-American of breaking into his own home and then arrests him for being upset about it.

I also found rather disturbing the cavalier tone with which Mr. Buchanan discusses violence against those of his fellow Americans with whom he disagrees. While he may celebrate the “good thrashing” that was doled out by the Chicago Police in 1968 – journalists Mike Wallace and Dan Rather being among those who were “thrashed” – I think most Americans, regardless of race or political stripe, cringe at the specter of violence involving law enforcement officials and our fellow countrymen. Mr. Buchanan has previously been accused of flirting with fascism and while I’m not prepared to assume the casual celebration of violence in his short essay is evidence of that tendency, it is nonetheless troubling indeed.

Of course, I am well aware of the fact that there are a number of Americans who agree with the extremist claims of the nation’s right wing authors and pundits, who think that the nation’s High Court is no place for a Hispanic from the Bronx, and who think that when it comes to confrontations between African-Americans and law enforcement authorities, the former should simply pipe down and take their licks. I am also aware that there is a resurgent threat of militia-inspired, right wing violence that poses a palpable threat of domestic terrorism against which we all should remain vigilant. Nonetheless, to draw the conclusion, as Mr. Buchanan has, that the majority of Americans embrace the divisiveness and rancor he seems to celebrate, is simply to assume too much. Indeed, notwithstanding Mr. Buchanan’s heartfelt hopes for a resurgence of precisely those tendencies that have divided this country for far too long, I think the better part of Americans aspire to process our controversies with a subtlety and complexity that he plainly fails to appreciate.